I did a pastor thing today. It seems like something that should be a big deal. Baptizing someone. Specifically, a little child who had a difficult birth. A young boy who unites a mixed family as a child of that couple that have joined themselves together as a partnership in love and fidelity. That young man, not even 2 months old yet, had the promises of God spoken over him. The prayers prayed for him. The gifts of the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins applied to him. A beautiful picture of the working of God upon us.
And yet, within all of that, it was a messy affair. Once the families arrived, the older siblings, who are not very old themselves were wandering all over the sanctuary and the chancel. Walking on the kneelers. Playing with cars and cows in the middle of the aisle. One of them, as they were exploring the room almost knocked over the Christ candle, which was lit for the baptism. So many voices trying to get them to sit still. To obey and listen. They would for a time, but then it was time to explore again.
Once the rite of baptism started, the child was crying at regular intervals. His older brother was walking all over and falling down. Talking and shushing were somewhat the way of things. Once the prayers were done and the child was baptized, anointed, and his baptism candle was lit, the crying was still happening. Children wandering. Talking and pictures commenced. All of it seemed not to fit together. Disorganized or haphazard. It was beautiful.
How often it is that we want our holy things to be “pretty” things. We want our special things to be extraordinary. They shouldn’t be messy or plain. They shouldn’t look insignificant or boring. They should have some pizzazz. Children should sit still. Voices hushed. No crying or talking. The priest being formally dressed should usher in some reverence and awe. The event should happen seamlessly, and we should leave with this amazing religious fervor that causes us to view ourselves to have ascended to some higher height.
This, by all accounts, would appear to be nothing of the sort. I think our expectations tend to be based on our American experience of religion. Our need to feel something. To see something. To be moved, or uplifted, or…something. Never mind that this has nothing to do with the revelation of God in Scripture, or the working of God in the history of the church.
If we want to look at some of the illusions to baptism, or baptism itself, most of us, in our minds eye turn to Jesus’ baptism and want the heavens to rend and the Spirit to descend like a dove. Holy Angels to sing the Hallelujah chorus, rays of light penetrating our darkness, and a voice shouting into our ears – “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased!”
But what of Naaman in 2 Kings 5? He wanted the glory and the ritual. He wanted the show and the dance, and Elisha did not play ball. Instead, “Go wash in a dirty river seven times and you will be clean.” No chanting or dance. No major motion picture soundtrack. Instead, the messiness of undressing and dipping in a river that humans and animals may have used as their toilet and washbasin.
Or what of the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8? Phillip gets sent to him to teach him of Jesus from Isaiah 53. The man learns of the salvation granted in Christ that is full of all sorts of messy, dangerous and disgusting realities, and he comes to faith. This faith leads to a desire for baptism. Without ceremony, vestments, church building candles, or liturgical texts, the eunuch sees water and wonders, will this do? Yes. Yes it will. In the dust and dirt of a long trip home, Phillip and the eunuch go down to the water, and that eunuch arises to new life in Jesus only to never see Phillip again. Only to have the knowledge he learned of the crucified Jesus, and the gift given of the promise of redemption found in this baptism he received from God by the hands of Phillip. Messy. Real. Supernatural. Ordinary.
I will look back on this day, one of many I have had before, and remember the sights and sounds of the ordinary all around me. The fact that there was no heavenly voice, major orchestration, miraculous powers, and yet there were. In all the disorganization, little Daniel received that gift from God. He was washed and granted new birth in the living hope of Christ. When the water touched him, it was as though those words were spoken over him from God, which he will need each day – “I am pleased with you.” No need for special ceremony or brilliant dramas. No need for quiet children or hushed voices. In that messiness of what seemed so ordinary, new life came forth. Daniel was buried with his Jesus in those waters and raised to new life, with or without our external holiness. With or without our desire for what we call supernatural. The circumstances of the event were beautiful, because it is in our mess that God works messy things to bring life. I LOVE that. In our attempts to be in control, pretty, and glorious, God does his best work by being the one who interrupts all of that.